HPD Officer Cathy Oliphant hadn’t been on the scene of the domestic disturbance call long before she was able to put the specialized training she’d just received to work.

It was the fall of 2020 and Oliphant arrived to find a teenager aggressively resisting his father who had him pinned to the ground.

A member of the department’s hostage negotiations and domestic violence teams, Oliphant had recently completed specialized Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training from the Tennessee chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

She calmly asked the dad if she could speak with the teen alone.

“You could tell at first he didn’t want to talk, but then he opened up more,” the officer recalled.

The teen, who suffered from an eating disorder, had grown angry at his parents for trying to make him take a nutritional supplement.

After listening to the teen in a non-confrontational way, Oliphant discovered that he was taking some new medications which could have contributed to his temperament.

She was able to calm the teen down, and put the parents in touch with mental health care professionals who could help the family.

“The CIT training I’d just completed gave me the training and resources that I could use in order to help that family,” she said. “It kind of took me back how well it worked.”

The Hendersonville officer was one of 15 law enforcement officers and dispatchers countywide who completed the 40-hour training in October.

The training is lead by mental health professionals who teach officers how to recognize a person in crisis and give techniques on how to deal with them. Officers also learn what resources are available for those who may be dealing with a mental health issue.

So far four Hendersonville officers have completed the training, made possible by an eight-county Department of Justice grant, according to HPD Commander Janel Rogan. Rogan, along with Sumner County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Carl McCoy head up the Sumner CIT program.

Rogan says HPD’s leadership feels so strongly about the benefits of the program, it has set a goal of having 40 officers receive the CIT training within the next year.

Like the rest of the country, the Hendersonville department is receiving more and more calls from those with mental health issues, Rogan noted.

“Oftentimes, when you don’t know who to call, you call us,” she said. “But not all of us are equipped to handle mental health issues. We think we are and we try to do the best that we can, but when somebody’s coming at you and aggressively coming towards you — or going towards another person, the average officer’s first response is that ‘I’ve got to protect that person. I’ve got to protect myself.’ And they’re not equipped with the training to de-escalate that situation based on the understanding that it’s a mental health crisis.”

“It’s not that you overreact, it’s just that you don’t understand it if you don’t have that type of training,” Rogan added.

She admits that having 40 officers trained within the next year may be an aggressive goal.

“But I think society is demanding that we as law enforcement just don’t resort to force immediately and have other tools in our tool belt — and this is definitely one of them.”

Oliphant and the other officers and dispatchers who completed the CIT training in October were recognized in a ceremony on March 12 at the county’s Emergency Communications Center in Gallatin.

Chiefs of police from Hendersonville, Gallatin, Portland and Goodlettsville as well as Sumner County Sheriff Sonny Weatherford and ECC Director Marilyn Anderson were on hand to recognize officers for their achievement.

Kim Rush King, CIT state coordinator with NAMI Tennessee, helped conduct the training.

“We hear back from families that you as officers come into contact with,” King told those who attended the ceremony. “We hear things like, ‘he was so calm, he listened and he treated my family member with respect.’ As you know that goes a lot further than escalating something and getting into an altercation.”

King pointed out that the Gallatin Police Department started conducting CIT training a couple of years ago for its officers.

“So Sumner County is on fire,” she said. “I use Sumner County a lot when I talk to other counties about CIT because you all are at the forefront.”

A ‘different’ kind of officer

Initiated by the Memphis Police Department after a police officer shot a mentally ill man in 1987, the training program is a community partnership between law enforcement, the mental health community and mental health professionals who volunteer their time to conduct the training.

Sam Cochran, a retired major with MPD, was instrumental in the program’s development.

Cochran, the ceremony’s keynote speaker, thanked Sumner County law enforcement leaders for embracing the program.

“More and more communities and counties in the state are going to get the CIT program,” said Cochran. “There’s going to be a powerful voice coming to the legislature. And that voice is we want a seamless hand-off from law enforcement to mental health so that law enforcement can go back to doing law enforcement responsibility and mental health does mental health responsibility.”

Each CIT officer was given a special pin to wear so that they can be identified.

“Wear your pin proudly,” said Cochran. “They’re going to know you’re different.”

Susan Phillips, a director with Volunteer Behavioral Healthcare Services, said that her organization would educate its consumers to look for the CIT pin when dealing with law enforcement.

“When you see that pin you know that you have a friend in law enforcement. And I’m so thankful for that,” she said. “So take this pin and wear it proudly because we’re proud of you.”

McCoy said that he often sees people who are in crisis as a negotiator with the Sheriff’s Office.

“Many times we do a police response on people who are simply in crisis,” he said. “And I think if we’ve got the officers who are on the road who can identify that and redirect that crisis to the help they need, then sometimes it doesn’t call for a full-fledged law enforcement response.”

McCoy added he appreciates the support the program has received from the county’s law enforcement leaders.

“I think it’s exactly what the people of our county and our state are asking for when they ask us to de-escalate the situation,” he said. “We all go through crisis at some point in our lives and I think that this is better equipping our officers.”